I rolled into the 3rd check point in Council Grove (mile 164) with a chest full of confidence. “This year, it’s mine!” I knew without a doubt that I would finish the 200-mile loop of gravel and low-maintenance roads through the Kansas Flint Hills. I grabbed the map for stage 4 and then found Traci and the boys sitting in the shade of a huge oak tree. I was more than ready to join them after spending the past 4 hours pedaling in the blazing sun.
The stretch from Florence to Council Grove was demanding. Not only was it the longest section of the course, it also came during the hottest hours of the day. And, while it was cooler this year than in years past, there was no relief from the sun. At some point, I spotted the shade of rare roadside tree and without thinking I pulled over, stopped and had that conversation with myself: “can I keep going?” This time, though, it wasn’t the same banter as the two previous years. I felt fine…even great. The shade just seemed the right place at that moment. I took a minute to cool down and then was back in the saddle and pedaling to Council Grove.
Council Grove needed to be a quick stop because I lost serious time fixing my bike at check points one and two. I wanted to eat a little real food, fill the bottles and strap on the lights. But, when I stepped off the bike, my feet reminded me just how demanding and intense this race really was. Searing pain shot through both feet, all of my toes were numb, and both arches felt like rubber bands that had been stretched too tight for too long. Walking was more painful than the grind up Texaco Hill–not good considering foot pain ended my ride last year.
I quickly removed my shoes and sunk into a camp chair. I propped up my feet and felt an immediate rush of relief as the blood flowed back into my legs. As I sat there eating with my feet resting high above my head, I realized this stop was going to take a lot longer than planned. Sitting there also gave me time to understand what was happening. I was riding the DK200 with relative ease. That, of course, lead to thoughts that I should be pushing harder.
Almost if on cue, Traci asked, “so what do you think about while you’re out there?” I paused before answering while I considering what I was about to say, “being out there.” It never really dawned on me until then but my thoughts all day were completely focused on the Dirty Kanza. Of course Dirty Kanza means so many things: just finishing; am I going to hard, too easy; the unbelievably barren landscape; eat!; all the clicks and pops coming from the bike–is something broken; drink!; old stone barns slowly crumbling back to earth; the absolute seclusion of the rolling terrain. I know my answer didn’t mean much to her, but I didn’t know how to explain what happens on the roads between each check point.
After sitting for a little more than an hour, I quickly stood up and stated that it was time to go. Zach helped me strap on the lights and I was off. I rolled slowly through town while I considered my options: take it easy and enjoy the ride or burn off some excess energy. I chose the latter and soon found myself cruising along at the fastest speeds of the day. Doing the math occupied my thoughts: 40 miles, less than 2 hours until sundown, gravel and rolling terrain…my original goal was to finish in under 13 hours. When it was obvious that wasn’t possible, I set my focus on beating the sun; I wanted to see downtown Emporia in the light of day. But, the hour-long break put me pretty far behind schedule. So I sped up. I had no worries about blowing up, burning matches, or not finishing. I wanted to see blue sky at the finish line. I rushed past a rider and his cheer made me smile. “Get it!” was all I heard.
Small groups of bystanders cheered as I rolled through Americus. (How cool is it that people in the area spend all day encouraging riders to push on! There’s a reason the Dirty Kanza is so popular.) The sun was just on the horizon as the small town’s road abruptly turned from pavement to gravel. With a little more than 10 miles to go, I accepted the fact that the sun had won. But, I was going to finish, which was my real goal this year.
I turned on the front light as I rolled on to Highway 99. A quick look over my right shoulder revealed a thin blue line on the horizon. That close. The competitor in me was soon overwhelmed by the excitement of the finish line. A rush of enthusiasm smacked me in the face as the spotters on the ESU campus called out my number: “0-3-2.” Hearing him rattle off the numbers one at a time sent chills through me. I popped a wheelie as I bounced off the curb. The noise of the crowd washed over me as I pedaled faster and faster down Commerce Street.
I rolled under the giant banner marking the finish line with both hands in the air. Three hours had passed since the winners crossed the line, but I didn’t care. I had won my own race today. Finding Traci, Caleb and Zach waiting there for me pretty much sealed the deal. The challenge of the Flint Hills was behind me. And, just like they–all the previous finishers say, nothing compares to the feeling of being there, at the finish line, knowing that on this day, I beat the Flint Hills of Kansas.